Playing the subaltern – Irrfan Khan as the migrant worker in Mumbai Meri Jaan: Umang Kumar

Guest post by UMANG KUMAR

Irrfan Khan reads the iconic poem, “Thakur ka Kuan”, by Dalit writer Om Prakash Valmiki, at the 2014 Jaipur Literary Festival.

While Irrfan Khan essayed a diverse range of roles, his hauntingly powerful cameo appearance in Mumbai Meri Jaan stands out for its intensity in the portrayal of working-class realities, especially those of migrant workers.

Mumbai Meri Jaan, a 2008 film, revolves around the tragedy of the 2006 Mumbai local-train blasts. Khan plays Thomas, a Tamil coffee-vendor who sells coffee from a roadside cart, and speaks minimum, Tamil-accented Hindi. His wife works as a domestic help.

Asif Kapadia, the British filmmaker, who worked with Irrfan on the movie The Warrior, recently shared what he had initially thought about Irrfan: “He looks like someone who’s killed a lot of people, but feels really bad about it.” While that probably had something to do with Khan’s brooding, prominent eyes, it does point to the deep volcano of emotions that Khan seemed to be harboring with perfect equanimity all the time.

We see something of that smoldering sensibility as subterranean angst the first time we meet Irrfan in the movie Mumbai Meri Jaan. The camera catches him from the back as he is laboring on his bicycle, one leg almost akimbo, the result of poor seat adjustment, maybe, but a common-enough sight on Indian roads. He is clad in a pink check-shirt and brownish-pants, rolled up to his calves. There is a canvas goods-bag strung from the front handle. Suddenly, a speeding car almost pushes him off the road and knocks him off balance.

Saala, aur jaasti phast chalaye to ud jayega” (Fucker, if you go any faster you will fly), he mutters towards the car that whizzes by, as the camera brings his face into focus. His left sandal has slipped out and fallen into a little roadside puddle. As he fishes it out with his feet, drains the excess water and prepares to resume cycling, we see the surliness and frustration – even a helplessness – etched on his face.

There is the struggle of the migrant worker that he embodies – the labored cycling, the folded handkerchief under his collar to prevent sweat stains, and the gaunt face recording the experience of daily hardships.

As he stops just ahead in front of a small kiosk selling cigarettes and biscuits, he notices the car which had side-swiped him moments earlier also parked there. The viewer has seen the occupant of the car, a young whippersnapper who is on his phone presumably with his girlfriend and quite oblivious to the world around him, disembark and walk up to the kiosk for cigarettes.

Irrfan’s order of a packet of biscuits is almost drowned in the surrounding noise and the young man’s phone conversation. As the latter lights his cigarette, the camera captures both of them in the same frame, Irrfan in the distance, as he is looking at the young man with an emotion tinged primarily with anger and disgust.

There are no words spoken in that frame yet it is alive with tension. The young man has not noticed Irrfan so there is no question of the scene deriving its edge from some kind of mutual antagonism. It is Khan’s face, taut with a sense of impotent anger, and the withering disgust in his eyes, burning with a deep anger at the vast gulf separating them, which do all the work.

There is also incomprehension tinged with hurt at realizing the callowness of that young person who seems barely older than a teenager, yet carries himself with supreme self-assurance, born of privilege. For that brief moment Khan just takes in the boy and his mannerisms open-eyed. He seems to be trying to make sense of the boy’s chutzpah and his casual insolence which seem to almost mock him by neither acknowledging his existence nor registering the fact of having caused him to lose his balance a moment ago.

The offender and the victim share the same space for what seems like an eternity and Irrfan Khan’s face mirrors his powerlessness and humiliation.

The scene ends with a set-piece, the young man throwing a tantrum after realizing that the cigarette he was given was fake because the genuine ones were pricier. He haughtily demands a genuine stick, and slapping a bigger bill on the counter to cover the cost, walks off in a huff.

“Dekha, paise ka garmi?” (The power of money, eh?) the shopkeeper comments.

The humble cycle and the fancy car; a young but careworn, laboring Khan and a brash youngster; an economy-pack of biscuits and expensive cigarettes: Irrfan Khan’s silence, his slouchy body-language, and his eyes with the haunted look gather up all the contrasts into himself. He does not need to speak to let the viewer know of the turmoil within him

As Khan walks away with the packet of biscuits and sits down for a “cutting chai” at a nearby tea-stall, the young brat is near his car, trying to sort out what seem like relationship issues. As the latter rants and raves in English on the phone, Khan is shown dipping his biscuit in the chai in silence, even as he is tuned into the noise and the exaggerated outrage around him.

Khan’s face registers only faint emotions; there is the continuing mute incomprehension; maybe even some surliness. When the young man throws down the phone in disgust as his conversation seems to have reached a dead-end, and stomps off teary-eyed into the car, there is suddenly something like a frown and a flicker on Irrfan’s face. There is still the choking hurt in this throat but as he absorbs the storm in the young man’s life, so self-possessed till now, there is a quizzical look which might almost be pity – or sympathy?

With his remarkable talent for minimalist expressions, with just a twitch on his face, a raised brow, narrowing eyes, or a hurt, penetrating gaze, Irrfan Khan was able to communicate an ensemble of complex emotions with disarming simplicity.

Further on in the movie, Khan has a run-in with the police for no other reason than being around when an unruly incident is broken up by them. As the offenders bolt, one policeman  brusquely asks if Khan knew any of those who ran away. When Khan denies, in his halting Hindi, having anything to do with the incident, the policeman, in his frustration, asks him to perform sit ups while holding his ears, as he opens the spigot on his coffee-container so that the coffee runs out onto the ground. Once again, Khan captures the haplessness of the migrant-worker in as unadorned and stark a manner as only he can.

The social setting of Mumbai Meri Jaan is post-liberalization India, with its burgeoning mall-culture and also growing inequality. On one trip to the mall, where he likes to try out various perfumes at a certain store by spraying himself from sample bottles, he is pounced upon by the shop staff and thrown out for what is considered trespassing.

His rather simple though hardscrabble existence is suddenly in conflict with circumstances which seem beyond his control – rich, spoilt kids who brazenly cut him off; policemen who punish him for no reason other than the fact that he is a migrant and powerless; mall security who manhandle him because he dares to indulge in luxuries which are not in keeping with his social status.

His reaction to all such injustices snowballs into a quest for vengeance – which is maniacal and obsessive but is also born of a sense of powerlessness. Khan carries out the part where he seeks revenge with the perfect blend of pathetic gloating and a self-defeating sense of achievement. All the while, he makes the audience understand him, the little guy. The little guy who has been pushed around all his life as a migrant-worker, the little guy who is just trying to make ends meet but is met with a society that really does not care for him.

All along, it is a stupefied, pained, often mute Khan that embodies to the hilt all the indignities, struggles, contradictions, anger, the impotence – and in the end – the humanity which form part of the life of a migrant worker.

Khan makes us believe in Thomas, with his limited Hindi, with a reflection of the struggle of existence as a migrant worker on his face; never for a moment does he overdo the mandate of the role. There are no overwrought and melodramatic moments meant to wrench pity from the viewer.

Instead, Khan allows the viewer to enter the unvarnished world of the migrant worker and struggle along with him each moment  – buying biscuits at the kiosk; sipping chai; doing sit ups as his coffee is drained; taking his family to the mall, dressed in a fresh, untucked bush-shirt with a kerchief under the collar; trying to participate in the new India by indulging a whim for expensive perfumes, as if to reclaim something the city and the society owe him.

There are too many Thomases in India today who have been pushed around, hounded and whose lives have been struck off-balance. They were all trying to make an honest living in Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Ernakulam and Bangalore. Despite all the images and stories we take in about their distress, it is very difficult for us to feel their very real pain.

It was Irrfan Khan’s empathy and unpretentiousness that he was able to reach out to us and offer to lead us into their world.

Umang Kumar is a socially-conscious writer based in Delhi NCR.

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